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How to Help an Alcoholic Parent: Approaches & Tips

Supporting an alcoholic parent involves a combination of empathy, open communication, professional help, and establishing boundaries while prioritizing both your and your parent’s well-being.

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Witnessing a loved one’s struggle with addiction can evoke feelings of fear, anxiety, and sadness, creating an emotional turmoil that disrupts the entire family and takes a significant toll on everyone’s mental and emotional health. 

Because trying to help an alcoholic parent heal is a common struggle, there are several resources available for treatment and support, not just for the addicted person but for their loved ones as well.

Identifying the Signs of an Alcoholic Parent

When a parent is struggling with alcohol use disorder (AUD), adult children who no longer live with them or do not even live nearby may not immediately notice the signs. If the parent is older, people might simply assume the signs of alcohol abuse are just the signs of normal aging.

The following are signs of alcohol abuse that might indicate AUD:[1-4]

Erratic Behavior

This could show up as sudden mood swings, aggression, unpredictable actions, or just a noticeable shift in your parent’s usual choices. 

Neglected Responsibilities

Observe if your parent starts neglecting their duties, such as work, household chores, or caring for the family.

Secretive Behavior

Look for signs of hiding alcohol, sneaking drinks, or being secretive about their activities.

Physical Signs

Pay attention to physical changes like bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, an unsteady gait, or a noticeable decline in personal hygiene. 

Financial Issues

Observe if there are sudden financial difficulties, such as unpaid bills, borrowing money frequently, or selling possessions to fund alcohol consumption.

Social Isolation

If your parent begins to withdraw from social activities, distancing themselves from friends, family, and previously enjoyed hobbies, it could be a sign of AUD, particularly if you have noticed this in combination with other signs.

Increased Alcohol Consumption

If your parent’s alcohol intake increases, it can be a sign of AUD. Look for increased frequency of drinking, drinking larger quantities, or drinking early in the day. You may also notice empty alcohol bottles in the trash or bottles hidden throughout their house.

How to Talk to Your Parent About a Drinking Problem

If you have noticed these signs in your parent, they need help, and this can be a tough conversation to have. The goal is to prompt them to seek help. The focus of the conversation should be concern and love rather than expressing judgment or inducing shame. 

Try to use “I” statements rather than an accusatory tone.[5] Stress how much you love them and how you want to help them get better. Point out examples of how alcohol has had negative effects on their life, such as causing them to withdraw from family events or any health issues that have cropped up or worsened due to drinking.

You and other family members need to show a united front and set clear boundaries to avoid enabling their behavior.[6] You could refuse to provide money for alcohol or to cover up the consequences of their drinking, such as lying about missing important appointments or events due to a hangover. 

Prepare for resistance from your parent. The initial response may be denial or minimizing the problem.[7] It often takes more than one conversation for someone to acknowledge the problem and agree to get help. 

How to Help Your Alcoholic Parent Address Their Drinking Problem

While the first conversation can often be the toughest to start, helping your parent with their drinking problem will be an ongoing effort. Here are some steps you can take to help your parent:[8-10]  

Educate Yourself

Learn more about alcohol use disorder and the effects it has on the individual who drinks as well as their friends and family. The better you understand the disorder as a whole, the better equipped you will be to answer any questions your parent has and approach the situation with empathy.

Show Your Concern & Support

Openly and honestly discuss your parent’s drinking problem with them. Emphasize your concern for their well-being and your commitment to supporting them throughout treatment and recovery.

Encourage Your Parent to Get Help

Your parent needs professional addiction treatment for AUD. They shouldn’t attempt to stop drinking on their own since alcohol withdrawal can lead to life-threatening symptoms and relapse is likely. Offer to accompany your parent to appointments and help them identify local resources like support groups for alcoholism.

Explore Treatment Options

Help your parent explore and research different treatment options for AUD. The treatment landscape can feel overwhelming, so it’s best if you can narrow the options for them. Look for evidence-based programs that offer a comprehensive approach to recovery, including aftercare support.

Set & Hold Boundaries

You may refuse financial assistance or limit time spent with grandkids until they get help.

Practice Self-Care

Seek support for your emotional health from friends, support groups, and therapy. The process of helping an alcoholic parent can be draining on many levels, and you need support and self-care to manage it.

What to Do if Your Parent Refuses Help

It’s very common for people to refuse help when they are first approached about their alcohol abuse issues. Your attempt to help your alcoholic parent may be met with denial, defensiveness, and even aggression.

It can be disheartening to have your concern and care met with this type of response, but know that it is often simply part of the long-term recovery process. Make it clear that you love and support them and that you are ready to assist when they are ready to get help.

It can be helpful to involve an interventionist. They can guide the process, assessing the situation and determining when and how often to approach your parent. They can also help you to set boundaries and manage your own self-care during this process.

An interventionist may guide you to draw a “line in the sand,” clearly defining behavior that you won’t tolerate and clear consequences. This process can be painful, such as limiting financial support to your parent, as you may feel a need to “save them,” but it can often be essential to motivating them to get help.[9]

Again, remember to prioritize your own self-care.[10] If your parent refuses treatment, there is a lot you’ll need to process. This can be challenging, and therapy can help.   

What Support Groups & Resources Are Available to Help?

There are various support groups and resources available to help individuals dealing with an alcoholic parent. It’s important to get this help, as the effects of growing up with an alcoholic parent, and continuing to deal with them in adulthood, can be substantial.[11-13] 

Here are some places you can find support:[14-18]

Al-Anon

Al-Anon Family Groups offer a safe, supportive setting for those who have loved ones with AUD. Many children of alcoholics attend these meetings, and you can give and get support here.

Adult Children of Alcoholics

This organization focuses on offering care and support to people who grew up in dysfunctional homes with alcoholic parents. In these meetings, people can begin to process and work through some of the trauma associated with this unique upbringing.

Family Therapy

Whether your parent’s alcoholism has been present your entire life or it’s an issue that has worsened in their senior years, your relationship has undoubtedly been damaged by AUD. Family therapy can be crucial to repairing some of the damage caused by addiction and other issues. Family support can be essential during early recovery, so this type of therapy is often part of comprehensive addiction treatment programs.

Updated November 12, 2023
Resources
  1. Alcohol use disorder. Nehring SM, Freeman AM. StatPearls. Published 2020. Accessed October 20, 2023.
  2. Diagnosis and pharmacotherapy of alcohol use disorder. Kranzler HR, Soyka M. JAMA. 2018;320(8):815-824.
  3. Alcohol-related aggression. Beck A, Heinz A. Deutsches Aerzteblatt. 2013;110(42).
  4. Warning signs of substance and alcohol use disorder. Indian Health Service. Accessed October 19, 2023.
  5. “I” messages or “I” statements. Montemurro F. Boston University.
  6. How to set boundaries with an alcoholic. Alcoholics Anonymous. Accessed October 19, 2023.
  7. Characteristics associated with denial of problem drinking among two generations of individuals with alcohol use disorders. Schuckit MA, Clarke DF, Smith TL, Mendoza LA. Drug and Alcohol Dependence. 2020;217:108274.
  8. Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Published 2020. Accessed October 19, 2023.
  9. Understanding how and why alcohol interventions prevent and reduce problematic alcohol consumption among older adults: A systematic review. Boumans J, van de Mheen D, Crutzen R, Dupont H, Bovens R, Rozema A. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2022;19(6):3188.
  10. The impact of substance use disorders on families and children: From theory to practice. Lander L, Howsare J, Byrne M. Social Work in Public Health. 2013;28(3-4):194-205.
  11. Childhood narratives about the experience of growing up with alcoholic parents. Hagström AS. Nordic Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. 2019;36(3):299-301.
  12. Adverse childhood experiences, alcoholic parents, and later risk of alcoholism and depression. Anda RF, Whitfield CL, Felitti VJ, et al. Psychiatric Services. 2002;53(8):1001-1009.
  13. “If I whistled in her ear she’d wake up”: children’s narration about their experiences of growing up in alcoholic families. Silvén Hagström A, Forinder U. Journal of Family Studies. 2019;28(1):1-23.
  14. Al-Anon Family Groups. Published 2017. Accessed October 20, 2023.
  15. Welcome. Adult Children of Alcoholics & Dysfunctional Families | World Service Organization. Published 2018. Accessed October 20, 2023.
  16. The role of the family in alcohol use disorder recovery for adults. McCrady B. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews. 2021;41(1).
  17. Effects of family therapy for substance abuse: A systematic review of recent research. Esteban J, Suárez‐Relinque C, Jiménez TI. Family Process. 2022;62(1).
  18. Family-based intervention for substance using Parents: Experiences and resource use. Fäldt A, Nystrand C, Fängström K. Research on Social Work Practice. Published November 24, 2022:104973152211380.
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